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Burlington’s ‘first responder’ could become a drone

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It might seem like the stuff of pure science fiction. But police officers and fire-fighters in Burlington will soon have a new, mechanical ally joining them on the frontlines of certain emergencies.

Earlier this week, Burlington’s city council gave the city’s police department the go-ahead to use funds from federal drug seizures to acquire a new, specialized drone to answer emergency calls that are particularly dangerous or tricky for human responders.

Although Burlington’s police force already has several remote-controlled aerial vehicles at its commend, this new acquisition will be deployed in an unprecedently forward capacity, arriving at the scenes of emergencies ahead of the city’s own personnel.

The council ultimately approved the purchase of this new gadget on Tuesday after a joint pitch a day earlier from the heads of the city’s police and fire departments.

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During a city council work session on Monday, Burlington’s police chief Alan Balog reminded the city’s elected officials that his officers have been using drones in an auxiliary capacity since 2019. Balog noted that 12 of his officers currently have FAA certifications that allow them to fly these remote-controlled vehicles in situations that range from man hunts to warranted searches. The city’s police added that his department has even used drones in routine patrols since 2023.

Balog conceded that its drones have, so far, played a strictly supporting role to its officers, who remain the first line of response when an emergency call comes in to its headquarters.  He nevertheless stressed that his department’s proposed acquisition would enable it to send out one of these vehicles as a sort of mechanical scout when conditions are particularly fluid or dangerous.

“For us, this would be a big step forward in the response to emergencies. We don’t know what police officers and firefighters are getting into until they see what’s going on on the ground. The drones as first responders will arrive before police officers and firefighters to provide additional intelligence about what’s on the scene.”

– Burlington police chief Alan Balog

Burlington police chief Alan Balog and fire chief Matt Lawrence

“For us, this would be a big step forward in the response to emergencies,” he said. “We don’t know what police officers and firefighters are getting into until they see what’s going on on the ground. The drones as first responders will arrive before police officers and firefighters to provide additional intelligence about what’s on the scene.”

Balog informed the council that drones already serve as first responders in communities across the U.S., although he conceded that Asheville is currently the only city in North Carolina to bestow this role to its remote-controlled eyes in the sky. He added that his own department would need to shell out about $50,000 to obtain a drone suited to this kind of work. In the meantime, Balog said he could detail one of his agency’s existing drone pilots to captain this new vehicle full-time from an eagle’s nest atop the police department’s headquarters on Davis Street.

Balog insisted that, with the proper equipment, his department could send out this drone to locations within a two mile radius of its headquarters within two minutes or less of an emergency call.

“The drones are equipped with very sophisticated cameras equipped with zoom,” he added. “So, potentially, you can fly down the interstate and see all the way down to Guilford County.”

Balog said that drones could prove invaluable when officers must negotiate hazardous terrain or approach a potentially dangerous suspect in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Meanwhile, Burlington’s fire chief Matt Lawrence, told the council that the city’s firefighters could also benefit from the sort of aerial reconnaissance a drone would provide. Lawrence said that this high-flying contraption could arrive on the scene ahead of his department’s personnel, who he nevertheless observed can generally reach any location in Burlington in four minutes, flat.

“[W]e’re talking about a resource that can deploy and be there in less than two minutes. This would really give [firefighters] a heightened sense of situational awareness. . . This information – this video feed – can be sent directly to our commanding officers so they would have the information en route.”

– Burlington fire chief Matt Lawrence

“But we’re talking about a resource that can deploy and be there in less than two minutes,” he added. “This would really give [firefighters] a heightened sense of situational awareness…This information – this video feed – can be sent directly to our commanding officers so they would have the information en route.”

Although the city’s new drone will ultimately be housed at the police department, Balog insisted that his agency will make sure that its colleagues at the fire department have full access to this piece of equipment.

“This is really envisioned as a public safety program that would serve police and fire,” he added. “Our firm commitment is that any time one of these things would happen in the city, a drone would respond, making sure our firefighters are safe.”

In addition to giving Balog the “10-4” to purchase this drone with federal forfeiture funds, Burlington’s city council also allowed his department to dip into this same cache for a number of other purposes.

During its regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, the council voted to let the police force spend some of this revenue on special analytical software, a tactical camera that its SWAT team can use to explore dark nooks and bolt holes, and upgrades to the training and fitness facility used by the city’s firefighters and police officers.

All told, the council gave the police department permission to withdraw $179,000 from its forfeiture account to cover these various acquisitions.

But in the end, it was the new “first-response” drone that seemed to loom largest for Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler when he and his colleagues considered these sundry requests during Monday’s work session.

“I’ve got an acquaintance who flies drones for other agencies,” Butler recalled that afternoon, “and he says we’re light years ahead of anyone else.”

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